Cuphead is a game that bleeds beauty and oozes style. It’s 1930’s stylised visuals and Jazz Psychedelica soundtrack are a perfect pairing, like tea and biscuits or fried stuff and cheese. The levels are bite sized nuggets of frustrating joy that are challenging but rewarding to finish. It’s as if Walt Disney and Super Meat Boy made a sex tape while Contra holds the camera.
Cuphead is the first game by indie developer MDHR that has been piquing my interest for, what seems like, my entire life. You play the titular character Cuphead in this 2D, run and gun, bullet hell, boss battler. Along with your brother Mugman you are out to steal the souls of anything and everything that gets in your way in order to settle your debt with the Devil. I could waffle on for 250 years about the story but the developers have done such a beautiful job of story boarding it that it would be a shame not to show it to you.
Cuphead is stunning. It’s beautiful. It’s a playable work of art. It’s clear that this was a labour of love for the Moldenhauer brothers and all the hard work has really paid off. It is a near perfect recreation of cartoons from the 1930’s. Not only does it look right but it feels right. The movement, the backgrounds, the way ordinary objects can look like terrifying nightmares, twisting and contorting into abominations. That’s how I remember the cartoons from my youth anyway. Vibrant flourishes of colour crackling on grainy film. My one problem is completely colour related though. One of the major mechanics of Cuphead is the parry system. By jumping onto anything pink you power up your special bar, 5 points in the special bar and you’ve got yourself a super. Trouble is I’m colour blind. I see in colour but can’t see certain colours. Like pink. A singular pink glob is fine, I’ll parry the life out of it. Put it next to a black blob, still fine. Twenty blobs of different colours swirling round the screen and I’ll NEVER see old pinky.
Having clearly spent so much time on the visuals, you expect a dip in quality for things like audio or controls but both are top notch, because they need to be. The games whole concept is persistence. Repetition of levels is essential, you’re either trying to beat a level or trying to beat yourself. Every success is rewarded with a grade and beating the game with certain grades unlocks things like filters to change the look of the it. Every failure, and there will be a lot, feels like it was your mistake, a mistake you vow to not make again. But you do, and that’s fine, because it won’t happen again. But it does. This is mostly your fault. The controls are responsive and accurate so if you need to shoot 3 imps, counter off of the pink ball to collect a coin, and dash jump over a gap the only reason you’ll die is because of you.
Collecting coins. It’s a pretty common concecpt in videos games. You collect them and you spend them. You’ll be spending them on upgrades to your weapons, your super, and yourself. More damage with less range. You can have an extra hit point but youll suffer a reduction to damage. A smoke bomb that turns your dash into a dodge is my current favourite. The shops are scattered around the maps, manned by a sinister looking pig with a demonic voice. He’s my favourite character.
The audio in Cuphead is another masterpiece in a game full of masterpieces. From the sound of your weapons to the shrieking of your enemies it all fits perfectly the tone the developers have worked to create. It’s the soundtrack that takes centre stage though, a perfect companion for the visuals that is key in the world that has been built. From the first squeal of saxophone you are transported back in time, something clicks in your brain like a Manchurian Candidate. It is perfection.
Cuphead is near perfection for me. It’s challenging but not punishing. You need to take a bit of time to suss out your foe but you don’t need to take the day off work and binge on YouTube videos with annoying voiceovers. You can play it for 5 hours or you can play it for 5 minutes, there’s no commitment required. If you can finish a level it’ll only take around 2 minutes, which is great. I can play it before work while I wait for a lift. This is a game that requires your time but doesn’t demand it. Victory feels well deserved but the desire to restart the level and try to do it without taking damage is usually overpowering. If I had to sum up Cuphead in one sentence it would be “Just one more go”.